Love and friendship take the backseat to conniving antics and poised privilege in Director Wilt Stillman’s takeoff of Jane Austen’s novella ” Lady Susan”. See this film if you want to feel superior to the “one-percenters” who can’t seem to foil my lady as she sets up her life like a chess board. Values and virtue be damned: this girl wants what she wants. For herself and for her daughter, this means men who are vastly rich and rather simple. In other words, ” perfect”.
Kate Beckinsale is perfection, herself, in this British period piece. Amid Georgian splendor and carriage rides back and forth to various estates, she tells her American friend, played rather uncomfortably by Chloe Sevigny, that the Vernons ( she & her daughter) ” we don’t live, we visit”. “We have no money, no husbands, but opportunities, yes.”
It is in wrestling these opportunities that the comedy of manners plays out. Beckinsale’s Susan is arch and acerbic. ” Be gone. I’ll have you whipped.” , she spits to a man who accosts her on a cloistered walkway. When her American friend asks if Lady Susan knew him, she blithely states, ” I know him well. I would never speak to a stranger like that.” And so it goes through cascading curls, stone archways, and brocade and French needle- worked upholstery.
Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, a widow with ” captivating deceit”. She wishes to “humble the pride of the pompous DeCourcys” , and she does this through bewitching the young Reginald DeCourcy ( Xavier Samuel). Through many machinations, like only Austen can plot, Lady Susan ends up with a wealthy simpleton ( Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin) as a providing husband, another ‘s woman’s husband as her live-in lover, and their love child looking legitimate in society’s eyes. Her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) gets Reginald and remains under Lady Susan’s control since she can not abide her former passion’s ” untrusting disposition”. Men seem to “live to oblige” her, and other women call her stratagems the product of her diabolical genius.
The musical score is gorgeously directed by Benjamin Esdraffo and written by Mark Suozzo with some Vivaldi, Handel and other classical pieces beautifully interwoven.
The scene with “the rattle” Sir Martin is one of the funniest. His amazement at the pronunciation of the “Churchill ” Estate, his confusion over the small green balls (peas) , and his talk of the fourteen commandments is silly fun. When Bennett pontificates on Fenimore Cooper as the poet who also writes verse, and parlays the pun ” he is quite ‘versicle’ that way”, we collapse. When Lady Susan gives his buffoonishness the excuse of being beset in ” the foaming waters of courtship” , it is hysterical.
Some of my favorite quotes are Lady Susan’s : ” A worthy lover should know one has reasons for everything one does.” ” Payment of wages are offensive to us both.” Lady Susan tells her friend that marriage to her husband, Mr. Johnson ( Stephen Fry) was a huge mistake: ” Too old to be gullible, and too young to die.”
” Love and Friendship” is full of irritating privilege, quotable asides, and cynical insight. If you are looking for romance, there is none here.